By Prof. Deon Rossouw
Those who hoped for a speedy return to normality in 2021 – or a return to office – are likely to be deeply disillusioned by now. With the second wave of Covid-19 infections spiking, delays in acquiring and dispensing a vaccine, and rumours of a third wave of infections in the coming winter, many employees are likely to work from home for the foreseeable future.
If all goes according to plan, namely that vaccines will become widely available for the bulk of the adult population and no surprises occur in terms of nasty new variants of the COVID-19 virus, one might expect to see a gradual return to office by the third or fourth quarter of 2021. However, even in this scenario, it has become clear that working from home is not a mere pandemic-related phenomenon, but a permanent feature of the future of work. Employers are thinking differently about office spaces, and about the need for employees to spend 40 hours per week on company premises.
This new remote working dispensation has opened many pitfalls, but also many opportunities. It clearly is neither a blessing nor a burden, but a mix of both. The focus in this article is on the challenges that remote working poses for ethical leadership in organisations.
The fact that ethical leadership in organisations matters is beyond dispute. Unethical leadership not only harms organisations, but often puts them permanently out of business. The recent spectacle of the unravelling of the Trump Presidency once again demonstrated how selfishness and disrespect for truth, people and institutions ultimately result in chaos and conflict. Ethics is the foundation of safe, just, and prosperous communities and organisations.
How though does one ensure that ethical standards prevail in an organisation, when people are not present on company premises, but are working remotely? Some organisations have opted for remote surveillance of staff to overcome this problem, but surveillance can be a very counterproductive way of ensuring that staff abide by standards of acceptable behaviour.
Surveillance signals to staff that leadership do not trust them and is likely to be rewarded with distrust in leaders.
A much more enduring way of ensuring that staff adhere to ethical standards is to ensure that an ethical culture prevails in the organisation, irrespective of where people are working from. Instead of relying on external controls for ensuring adherence to acceptable behaviour, an ethical culture ensures that people abide by ethical standards out of conviction and not because they are externally controlled.
But how do you cultivate an ethical culture when you are not in regular contact with your co-workers – as is the case now for many organisations where a remote working dispensation has become the new normal?
There is a clear link between ethical leadership and the ethical culture that prevails in an organisation. This has been affirmed by scholars in the field of organisational culture, such as Schein who indicated that the most influential factor that determines the culture of an organisation is leadership. The South African Business Ethics Survey 2019 conducted by The Ethics Institute on large and listed companies in South Africa also found that one of the foremost factors that determine the ethical culture of an organisation is leadership commitment to ethics.
The ethical culture of an organisation is thus to a large extent determined by what members of an organisation see and hear from their leaders. It is exactly at this point where remote working can potentially isolate employees from one of the most important cultural forces that shape the ethical culture of an organisation, namely exposure and proximity to leaders.
The challenge for leaders in remote working environments is thus to ensure that members of their organisations receive regular exposure to their leaders. In line with this, leaders need to create more opportunities than before for communicating directly – albeit digitally – with their staff. Staff need to see and hear from their leaders as to why ethics is important, and how ethical standards and behaviour relate to the purpose and mission of the organisation. This is a responsibility that not only resides with executive leaders but should also be shared by leaders on all levels of an organisation.
The credibility of leadership commitment to ethics is, however, directly linked to the way in which an organisation treats its employees. Should there be a discrepancy between the ethical standards professed by leaders, and the way that staff are treated, the ethical commitment of leaders will be seriously questioned.
In the survey mentioned above that was conducted by The Ethics Institute, a clear link was also found between the ethical treatment of staff and the strength of the ethical culture in an organisation. Fair treatment of staff in the said study was described as, “The degree to which the organisation treats its employees with respect, fairness and dignity, and considers employees when making decisions that may affect them”.
The fair treatment of employees in a remote working environment poses new challenges to organisations. It calls for paying far more personal attention to the well-being of staff. The effect of remote working on the mental and physical well-being of people is well documented by now. Although some people relish working from home, many others suffer from isolation, stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, burnout, and other mental health ailments.
In these circumstances, showing concern and care about the personal well-being of staff become a precondition for people to experience and know that they matter to the organisation, and are being treated fairly. In a recent (January 2021) article in the Harvard Business Review, Brian Kropp writes that one of the trends that will distinguish successful organisations in 2021 is their ability to enable employees to live better lives.
Employees can only perform optimally if they are physically and mentally in a good space. Rather than totally outsourcing the responsibility for physical and mental well-being to their staff, smart organisations will take co-responsibility for their well-being instead. Obviously, this responsibility cannot be shouldered by executives alone. Leaders on all levels, but also colleagues can collaborate in creating a culture of connectedness where it is part of the organisation’s culture to care not only about performance and outputs, but also about the health and sanity of the people behind the performance and output that are so essential for every organisation’s success.
Ironically, it is when more than profit and performance matters to organisations that they often enjoy better performance and profits. The link between ethics, positive employee morale and improved performance is a proven one – and one that has become even more important in a remote working environment.
Prof Deon Rossouw is the CEO of The Ethics Institute and an Extraordinary Professor in Philosophy at Stellenbosch University.